Redemption and Second Chances
Freed from prison by Obama, ex-inmate opens restaurant
A man reaches his lifelong dream to open a restaurant.
But this is not about a typical business. It’s certainly not about privilege or someone that started in life on third base, and boasts that they hit a home run. This is about two men that were worlds apart, but no more. Their lives are intertwined.
Candido Ortiz was born in the Dominican Republic and lived in Union City. He did 26 years in Federal Prison on narcotics charges. Ortiz original sentence was 49 years and six months. The harsh sentencing requirements, under “The Rockefeller Drug Laws.”
Jim McGreevey resigned as the Governor of New Jersey in 2004. With his then-wife at his side, McGreevey admitted he was gay. McGreevey, whether he wanted to or not, became the first openly gay governor in America. Then something uncanny happened. In fact, remarkable. The worlds of these two men cross-paths. Since McGreevey resigned, he has been a man on a mission. McGreevey became an episcopal priest. The former democratic governor has found his passion in life. McGreevey helps former convicts with re-entry into society. This is not an easy task. He is saving lives, one person at a time. McGreevey’s current job is running the Jersey City Employment & and Training Program. (JCETP). This program is how Ortiz and McGreevey met each other.
So here I am sitting in El Sabor Del Café restaurant at 31 Martin Luther King Blvde. It opened with much fanfare December 19th, 2017. You could say it was a Christmas gift, if you will, from former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey and others in the local community.
To understand the complexities of what McGreevey is doing these days, just read his face. His non-stop energy for life. McGreevey is not about taking credit as politicians do. McGreevey is about getting things done. McGreevey works to rehab lives, to give people a second chance.
The passion in life for Mr. Ortiz happens to be cooking. Cooking, and then some more cooking. No matter what federal prison he was locked up in, Ortiz quickly became the lead chef. He says the key to cooking is in the spices. Knowing how to properly spice the food. Ortiz started cooking for the warden. The correctional officers, and thousands of meals per day for inmates. Ortiz told me:
“I work in prison, in all the prisons around the united states for the last 25 years, 26 years….I just cook. That’s what I do. I been cooking all over. I’ve been cooking for the warden of the institutions. I’ve been cooking for the staff, for the regular police…for everybody.”
Sometimes life can be a domino effect. All the stars have to align to just get a shot at opportunity. Now enter the third element to this.
How many people can ever say they were pardoned by the President of the United States.
The 49-year prison sentence of Candido Ortiz was cut short. Pardoned by the President of the United States, President Obama. Obama made prison re-entry programs a top priority. For non-violent offenders, as his time was winding down in the white House. Obama even became the first president to ever actually visit a Federal prison. At the prison Obama said:
“Our primary driver of this mass incarceration phenomenon is our drug laws. Our mandatory minimums around drug laws. We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to control crime and rehab individuals. This is costing tax payers across America 80 billion dollars a year.” President Obama.
Without clemency from Obama, Ortiz was looking at another 20-plus years in Federal prison. I asked Ortiz a few basic questions, like how old was he when he was convicted.
“you were 27…how old are you now” “57 years old” “what were you convicted of” “narcotics, drug trafficking and gun charges. They give me 49 years, six months.”
Ortiz would have been in his 70’s when he would have been let go, but he walked from a federal prison in Ft. Dix NJ about a year ago with no money, no relative who could help him financially, and no career experience. But with assistance from the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a nonprofit run by former Gov. McGreevey, Ortiz got a job doing what he loves as a short order cook. He quickly established himself as a responsible individual and Ortiz had larger dreams. I sat down with McGreevey at the restaurant the same day I met Ortiz.
“A judge gives him 49 years and six months. Dominic that’s insane! 49 years and six months. But for President Obama, he would have served all those years in a federal penitentiary. While in the federal penitentiary, he loves to cook. So he became a chef at one federal penitentiary, and then another.” Jim McGreevey
It was through McGreevey’s non-profit that they helped Ortiz. They raised the necessary funds for Ortiz to open his own restaurant. A local business group of Hispanic businessmen put up the twenty-five thousand dollars to get started. On his menu this night: Ribs, pepper steak, ox tails, and rice and beans. The food was delicious. Ortiz told me how many people he cooked for.
“I cooked for 2500 people. I cooked for 1500 people. When I was in Trenton, NJ, I was the head cook for 9 years, and I cook for 1300 inmates plus 500 staff. I was the head cook. I had 20 people working with me. I was number 1.”
The chances of being pardoned by the President of the United States are arguably one in 50 million or even greater. Ortiz knows it. I asked Ortiz about the President of the united states pardoning him
“Yes sir. Not only that, the same president that set me free, the day that I opened this place, sent me a letter…it’s right there. The same President told me that he congratulates me, and that he believe in me, and he in a way gonna have my back.” Candido Ortiz
McGreevey was beaming with pride and the business next door is also a product of McGreevey’s group. A young man who had fell on bad times, but in 2018 owns his own tattoo business, and hopes to soon marry his girl fiend. McGreevey said:
“This is why re-entry works. I’m grateful that President Obama granted him clemency. He could have been in prison for another 20 years. How crazy is that? At a cost of 55,000 a year. That would be a million dollars to incarcerate him, as opposed to releasing him, having federal probation referring him to our program, and then we’re working with him to help raise the money, connecting him with cooking, allow him to practice his craft, reunifying him with the family.” Jim McGreevey
I thought about some of the pitfalls for former convicts. Those recently released from prison. For example, McGreevey told me one major issue is many inmates like Ortiz’s leave prison without real proper identification.
“ID is so hard, you know even for a guy born in NJ. You know your born in Jersey City. You do time in prison, and you come back, and you don’t have any identification, all your have is the department of corrections, how do you identify yourself, how do you prove who you say you are. You need identification. You need identification to get an apartment, you need identification to get a job, you need identification to open a bank account, these guys have nothing, they have nothing, they have nothing.” Jim McGreevey
The group got a copy of Ortiz’s birth certificate through the Dominican Republic embassy. That was step one, but it’s not the only obstacle according to the former governor for former inmates.
“And then if they have outstanding warrants, we have 70 lawyers from throughout the state who help clear out their back warrants so that if you’re driving down the block and your signal light goes out and a police officer pulls em, and says you have an unpaid ticket, that might have been unpaid before you went into prison 20 years ago, you’re going to get locked up. And then you’re going to be put in county jail, and that’s going to be a violation of the feds and that’s going to be a problem. So, part of this is understanding that the system, the criminal justice system does not work Dominic to make people whole or healthy.” Jim McGreevey
“There are very few people who get better in prison. Prison almost invariably makes people worse. Worst behaviors, worst reactions, worst values, and so if we can take men and women and put them in a place where their held to be responsible, held to be accountable, held to be consistent, that is far better off than allowing them to linger in prison which frankly teaches the worst lessons of human behavior.” Jim McGreevey
Mr. Ortiz is already giving back to the community charging less for his meals than other restaurants in the area, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Ortiz is on his “grind.” He arrives each day at 6:00 AM in the morning, and does not leave until 10 pm. On the Wall above the food, for the public to see, are two photos. One of President Obama, and the other one of Jim McGreevey. Beneath the photos is the letter Obama sent him on day one of the restaurant.
This program is similar in some regards to the highly successful Hudson Link initiative in NY. Hudson Link, led by their executive director Sean Pica, which works to provide privately funded college education for prison inmates. One of the NY prisons where Hudson Link operates at is Sing Sing Maximum Security Prison. There I interviewed recording artist Usher, Harry Belafone, and Journalist George Will..
I started covering Hudson Link several years ago, and to attend one of the college graduations, there is not a dry eye in the house. As I say in Church testimonies around the country, “We all fall down in life, the question is do you get back up.” These men and women have done what amounts to nearly the impossible, rebuilding their lives. It’s a domino effect. Their new-found success rebuilds their families, and thus will play a major role that strengthens their communities. Communities that badly need role models.
I came into covering the Hudson Link story with a sentiment of was it a waste of my time because in many cases, these are hardened criminals. However on graduation day, to watch these men interact with their families, it is nothing short than amazing. Even though I too have to go through extremely tight security to enter the maximum security prison about 50 miles outside of New York City, in Ossining New York for events honoring the men that are part of Hudson Link, I often have to sneak off into the bathroom to wipe away tears. Hudson Link’s recidivism is only about 4 percent. The recidivism rate for other inmates in more than 40 percent. At a Hudson Link graduation, I also spoke with Doris Buffett. Yes, that Doris Buffett, the sister of Warren Buffett. We talked about why she supports Hudson Link, and has donated 100 million to charity.
Some of the men were in jail for Murder, and many experienced domestic violence issues growing up. I have even hosted events for Hudson Link, for several years. At Hudson Link to just say that I have met some amazing people would be the understatement of the year.
Folks like Hudson Link Board President Christian French, and again Executive Director Sean Pica. Former Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer who is beloved for giving inmates a second chance at Sing Sing to pursue a college degree. The current superintendent of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Michael Capra and his wife Jackie.
At one event at the prison, the superintendent was so excited about one event they were doing where family members of Hudson Link students, inmates at Sing Sing Prison were invited to the prison for a family day. Face painting for the children of the inmates, and many other activities. The superintendent, traditionally known as the warden was smiling from ear to ear with happiness for the inmates, and so was his wife Jackie. She even volunteered her time that day to work at one of the tables, greeting inmates and their families. This was the day my views started to really change about prison inmates. Too not judge them so harshly as I had in the past. Not all, but most. There are some people that must stay locked up for horrendous crimes committed, and should not be in society. I watched the men at this prison “family day” hold their infant babies with such care, and engage their children. Ages 2–17 that day and the inmates had the same enormous pride that any other father would have. I was almost embarrassed to admit it to myself, but the truth is, that was when it really hit me, that the prison inmates are people just like the rest of us. They too want to have a good life, to have a family, but years ago made a bad decision that often happened in a matter of seconds that sent them to prison. This photo below is at a Hudson Link graduation. Inside the cafeteria of the maximum security prison. Recording artist Usher, Harry Belafonte, and myself.
Back to Candido Ortiz, he also has his first contract, cooking meals daily for the other former convicts in McGreevey’s program. Something Ortiz does with tremendous pride as he told me with a big smile on his face. I can’t begin to fully comprehend how blessed Ortiz feels that he is? To arrive each day and see something that is his. To walk up on Martin Luther King Blvd in Jersey City, and see the yellow orning atop his own restaurant with mixed color lettering after speeding 26 years in prison. During that incarceration, Ortiz enrolled in cooking classes, and earned several culinary certifications.
We close with the parting words from Mr. Ortiz. He says he is never going back to prison…and loves being in his kitchen.
“I don’t want nobody, nobody…it could be may worst enemy…behind bars.” Candido Ortiz
Ortiz told me that, and served his next plate of food as the Jersey City customers offered tremendous praise of his cooking ability.
Ortiz restaurant is not far from the reentry program that helped make his dreams come true and saved his life.